Ronde van Vlaanderen
The Ronde van Vlaanderen cyclo is held the day before the pro's race and it seems the whole of Belgium either turns out to ride it or to shout encouragement to those that do.
Flanders is regarded as one of the toughest of the one day classics and the cyclo is no different.
It has everything you'd expect from a classic; dodgy pot-holed ridden roads, cobbles, monster climbs, super-technical descents, grip-less off-cambered surfaces and an abundance of street furniture, excitement and atmosphere.
Today we ride!
Dave Whitt, Bob Cabot and myself were down for the 140 kilometre route and Dianne entered the 75 kilometre event. After a nourishing, all we could eat breakfast we set off the 13 kilometres from our hotel in Aalst to Ninove for the start.
There was some debate of riding to the start, but as we weren't sure if we'd all finish at the same time it was decided it's best to go in the cars. After sitting in a 30 minute traffic jam it began to look like a bad idea. With a long day ahead of us and here to enjoy ourselves; what's the rush?
So we chilled and enjoyed the ambience Just after nine, we left the cars for the start line. A quick comfort break (as you can see above) and we were off.
First things first, grab the freebee glucose tablets from under the start banner, then dodge the rider lying on the floor who'd already come a cropper in the first ten metres!
Out on to the main road and join the 15,000 others all heading for Oudenaarde.
A Belgian asked me which route we were doing, I replied I wasn't sure but the Molenberg was the first climb. Last time I rode it the Reikelberg was first but it wasn't on this years route. "It must be the red route" he informed me. Dave looked at the sky and wanted to put his rain jacket on. But he didn't.
I think it's going to rain
We said goodbye to Dianne and jumped in to a fast moving group. Heading off the 38 kilometres to the Molenberg. We try not to get in to race mode but as you all know it only takes two to make a race. We begin jumping from group to group and pick up the pace. Dave once more mentions the dark clouds but we press on.
Then it rains. Luckily we get separated at a junction, myself and Dave are ahead, so we wait for Bob. It gives Dave a chance to get his jacket on. Better late than never, was a pretty stupid thing for me to say. But it's never stopped me before.
Dave put his rain cape on over his wet clothes and was surprisingly calm about it all. We re-group and crack on in classical Flanders weather; horizontal rain. Could the day get any better?
If Carlsberg Made Climbs...
A succession of rises begin to sting the legs. Normally you'd call them hills but in Belgium they don't even register.
Then, from nowhere it appears; the Molenberg. The 460 metre, loose-cobbled climb is narrow, wet and steep. You approach it blind from a main road and don't even know it's there until you're on top of it.
With sections of 14%, it requires skill, determination and luck to get to the top in one piece. People have been walking up it all day, but we all manage to climb it successfully. The day has truly started.
I could never tire of cobbled climbs, I get tired on them but I could never tire of the ultimate challenge. Like an excited parent at Christmas I wanted someone to share them with.
For Dave and Bob the reality lived up to all my hype and gushing all through the winter. They'd experience the first one and now it was a race to the next.
Before that there was the first feed at Oudenaarde, which we bypassed. Too many people, too long to wait and we've a race to run.
We got stopped at the village roundabout to let a funeral procession past. I managed to be at the front when the policeman set us off. Which was nice in a way because it gave me a clear view. But I still managed to take us past the turn off for the Wolvenberg.
To be honest it was the marshal's fault. I think I was going that fast he thought I was a pro and didn't need directions. Still, a 50 metre detour saw us back on track. At least now we were in the pack again and getting some shelter.
Which was nice, because the 666 metre Wolvenberg is a devil of a climb (see what I did there?). No cobbles but 17% sections gave Cabot the ammunition he needed to show who's boss on the hills. Not wanting to peak too soon me and Dave held back. Yeah, right!
Before we got to the Oude Kwaremont there were the cobbles to tackle at Kluisbergen. These were a 3200 metre section of slightly rising cobbles that you flew over the first 200 metres.
Then it just felt like you were riding with your brakes on. Every single cobble saps a little of your energy and you fight desperately to keep up your speed.
But human bodies weren't designed for such torture, unless your name's Boonen. You get a hammering that's almost impossible to describe. And like a scary fairground ride, when you get to the end you feel so happy you just want to turn around and have another go. Although you wouldn't know it form the photo below!
How happy are we?
The Oude Kwaremont on paper appears easy, 2,2k at 5%, however in reality it's a killer. I've ridden it a few times (it's included in Het Volk) and had a plan for revenge.
Get to the front for the first 600 metres of tarmac then hang on for the 1600 metres of cobbles that followed. Once more Cabot had other ideas and screamed past when the cobbles started.
Dave, playing the long game, held his pace on my wheel and climbed steadily to the top. It was at this point that he mentioned a comfort break might be appreciated. Something at breakfast hadn't agreed with him.
Riders 0 Berg 1
No time for that Dave, the Paterberg is just down the road. The Paterberg used to be tarmac. Then the farmer who owns it had it cobbled, providing they use it for Flanders! This would be our first walk of the day.
I thought at last I was going to be first to the top but at the steepest bit (20%) someone in front of me went down. I moved to the side of him and grabbed the fence. I stayed up but now couldn't get going again.
I looked behind and everyone was off their bikes. It didn't help that there was an ambulance blocking the road. Bob said a few uncharitable things until I pointed out there was a bloke with his collar bone at a funny angle sitting in the road.
Bob, having had the odd clavicle incident, then felt a little sheepish. Not that there were any sheep involved, you understand!
Then came the infamous Koppenberg. And just like the pro's on Sunday, we had to walk the last 100 metres. If you want a laugh go and find a steep, wet, greasy hill and try to walk up it in cleats!
The sheer volume of riders, wet cobbles, gravity and tiredness (the others not us) all cumulated in slight disappointment. But with another 16 classic climbs and heaven knows how many kilometres of cobbles to tackle, you soon get over it.
After climbing the last three monsters in just three miles you get a slight 12k respite before the 820 metre, 8% cobbled Steenbeekdries. This isn't too bad compared to the next one, a climb where experience really does count. Again it's one I've ridden a few times before and knew well.
The 800 metre Taaienberg may only be 7% overall but it has bits at 18% in it and the cobbles are atrocious. However there is a massive gutter on the left hand side. I intended to get to the hill at the front of whatever group we were in and get to the gutter first. And for once the plan worked.
Despite two riders, from the same club, falling off in front of me I managed to get round them and maintain momentum. If Cabot wanted this one he was going to have to go the long way round. Never saw him. My work is complete. I can now sleep easy knowing I "won" at least one climb. How sad am I?
Dave's Comfort break
We regrouped at the top and headed for the next feed. Which wasn't there! We cleared the level crossings at Maarkedal and headed back towards Oudenaard. Then to Dave's relief, literally, we found a building site with a chemical facility. He did what he had to do (sorry Dave but it's part of the story) while me and Bob restocked the fuel tanks and looked at the leadening sky.
In no time at all we were back on the road with Dave firing on all cylinders again. We found a roadside pub and I went in to get our bottles filled and some Mars bars. A quick blast down the road and some more cobbles; downhill ones at that.
It was at this point that my saddle bag and me parted company. It bounced past Bob at fifty mile an hour but there was little he could do. Once he'd caught me and told me about it, it was too risky to head back up the road against the flow of traffic. So we left it, it wasn't for another few miles till I realised the spare car keys were in it.
The other bergs passed without too much incident, apart from pain and happiness in equal measure. We all began to climb strongly and to be honest without too many people passing us. Maybe all that winter training was paying off.
As the ride went on we seemed to be getting stronger. Bl**dy tired mind but not as tired as those around us. Then my phone went, a text from Dianne. We carried on for a while then found an opportunity for Bob to have a comfort break. I phoned Dianne, it wasn't good.
She's managed to get to within 10 metres of the top of the Muur when a big German stalled on the hill and fell off landing on her and her bike.
The rear mech was bent in to her wheel and the bike's immobilized. She was okay, a little bruised, but more annoyed at not being able to get to the very top!
The fact she even made it to the Muur was an achievement in itself. Unless you've actually been there you can't imagine it.
The TV just doesn't give the impression of how steep or hard it is, As you approach the Muur you can see the chapel nestled on the top. "That's where we're going" points out Dave. It's still about 3k away and looks as though it's just as high. You get a sore neck just looking up at it.
As you can see, I was quite comfortable climbing the Muur. It seemed, we'd contained ourselves rather well and had enough energy left at the end to "enjoy" the challenge and the climb.
We'd already decided we'd stop at the top and find Dianne. After threading our way through the masses and attacking the last two hundred metres, there she was. Holding her bike at her side.
As we looked down there were still hundreds of riders coming up the climb.
A quick shuftie at the bike and we reckoned we could bend the mech back in to place without breaking the drop out. A brave decision but it worked. We could now all ride on together.
Luckily it's all down hill to the Bosberg. Unfortunately, the Bosberg itself is anything but. The first 900 metres are tarmac then for the last 350 it gets steep and it gets cobbled. Knowing it's the last climb you find that little bit extra and give it all you've got. There's no greater feeling than flying over cobbles and overtaking riders. We get to the top and regroup for the last time.
It's 17k to the finish so we agree that Dave and Bob should finish with a flourish, while I hold back and finish with a floozie. Who you can see above having climbed the Bosberg stuck in her middle gear!
With Dianne's bike stuck in a rear gear and with only the front changer to select, we ride in at a nice comfortable pace. The boys have other ideas and get a second wind. They latch on to a group heading for the finish and begin to work them over. Dave now feels "comfortable", or is that safe, getting out the saddle and making and effort and Bob was just Bob. If it ain't hurtin' it ain't riding.
I "slacked" back to the finish with my wife where we had a nice picture taken to go with our Alpe D'Huez one.
We all met at the finish line, congratulated each other on a good job, well done, then headed for the car. Thanking our lucky stars we didn't have to ride to the hotel.
I drove my car and chatted with Dianne, while Dave drove his and sat in silence because Bob had fallen asleep! How ironic is that?
After our evening meal and a replay of the day's events we had a good nights sleep and an even better breakfast.
Myself and Dianne left for home, while Dave and Bob headed for the Flanders Museum, the start of the ladies' race and to watch the men's race on the Muur.
If you want a laugh ask to see his photo's.
They even got me a Flanders Flag for the flamme rouge Service Corse wall.
All in all a fantastic weekend, you really should try it sometime. Next stop, the Amstel Gold for round two...
If you want to see the berg profiles, and one of the best event websites around, click the links below, you won't be disappointed.